Work that Matters

I had a very interesting conversation with the CEO of a large public sector organisation last week.

They, like a number of leaders in the public sector, had spent the early part of their career in the private sector; in this person’s case leading significant corporate turnaround activity ensuring a profitable return for shareholders and making a tidy sum for themselves into the bargain.

We were talking about why they had made the transition out of the private sector and after much conversation they summarised by saying that they had simply come to a point in their life where they wanted to do ‘work that matters’.

For them this meant applying their leadership and experience to turnaround organisations of national interest.

With time for reflection an unintended consequence of our lockdown circumstances, we are finding more and more people questioning ‘why’ they are doing the work they are doing. This is driving private sector organisations to become more overtly purpose led, allowing private sector leaders and their teams to find meaning in their work,  ensuring they can attract the best talent, and making sure an ever more discerning consumer is happy to buy from them. It is also leading to many people exploring what careers the public and not for profit sector have to offer.

People seem to be seeking work that matters.

What was interesting in the conversation with this particular CEO, was that it was clear they hugely valued their early private sector career, citing many examples of where this experience was in fact what was enabling them to deliver the outcomes that ‘matter’ now. There was no judgement towards people who were still very focussed on private success – rather the opposite, suggesting that it was that drive for success and financial independence early in their career that had led to fast-track development and brought them to the position they are in now.

In his fascinating book ‘Falling Upward’, Richard Rohr author and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation talks of the two halves of life. The first half is designed to create a proper container for one’s life, and the second is to understand what the container is actually for. One of his key points is that you need to go through the first half to get to the second – you can’t just jump to the second half.

I am doing Rohr’s work a disservice by simplifying it to say that first half activities are broadly ego led and focussed on worldly success, with the second half more wholistic and spiritual – but this will give you a sense of his teaching.

What is pertinent here is that you can tell someone who is leading from a ‘second half’ perspective because they see the huge value of the first half activities whilst recognising that there is more to come.

In a world that tries to push us towards binary decisions and seems to want us to decide between private success or public service, might it be that we need leaders who recognise the importance and contribution of both?

As we emerge from lockdown and the economy starts to find its feet again, there is much ‘work that matters’ to be done. Leaders who can learn from other sectors and help their people find meaning in their work will be in high demand.

Jamie Livingston is Group Chairman and CEO of the Livingston James Group.

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